For the first time since Sir Alex unbuckled his watch and left us champions of England, United have actually reached the lofty summit of the Premier League.
City’s fantastic capitulation at Tottenham was, to say the least, a shock result. I really didn’t fancy Spurs’ chances; a sleeping tiger that seems to have overslept for decades.
However, we cannot deny that the first half of our match was tedious and terrible. As defensively belligerent as Sunderland were, especially with Cattermole stalking Rooney like a feline predator, we should have had the imagination and skills to unlock such a tight defence and we’ll need to do so in coming matches, both in England and Europe, and against much better teams.
Rooney was again under the spotlight as he played in the number 10 role, but maybe a tad too deep. With Schneiderlin and Carrick holding the midfield, Rooney should have made himself more of a nuisance up front, making a bigger creative contribution alongside Memphis and Martial.
Thankfully with Memphis prodding home from Mata’s deflected cross just seconds before the break, we broke Sunderland’s spirit and the crowd were lifted from their afternoon frustrations. Rooney’s knee poke seconds after the restart put us in complete control, and United could finally settle down and start playing some more exciting stuff.
We learned a few useful things yesterday. We already knew De Gea would have been a great loss to United if the transfer would have gone through. Although he didn’t have much to do, when called upon, he used his body well and showed what an agile shot stopper he is. In one instance following a corner, he bundled his way through a maelstrom of players, thumping into his own defenders and knocking the ball clear; something that was lacking from his game two years ago.
Secondly, Darmian will surely prove to be an absolute steal of a defender who has shown maturity and positional intelligence beyond his years. When I saw him chosen as left back, I wondered why Young wasn’t picked, but his performance was fantastic and I really like this kid.
Memphis is developing but unfortunately does have shades of Nani, Januzaj and early Ronaldo about his game, often trying to do too much and and not lifting his head to pick out a teammate. He looks the part – he’s strong and brave, and can make himself a danger to opposing defences, but he needs to improve his decision-making. Had he slipped an easy ball to Martial late in the game for a tap in, the young man could have made it three in three on his debut season, but Memphis decided to fire straight at the statuesque Pantilimon.
What of Martial this week? I know he has been compared to Henry and even Anelka, but yesterday’s performance reminded of (don’t laugh…) Mark Hughes. Even though he didn’t score, he was brilliant for a nineteen year old coming to terms with a new country and culture. He often played with his back to goal, holding up the ball with sometimes two defenders at his heels, and releasing other teammates. He’s deceptively strong, with guile and bravery, and considering the money City paid for Sterling, I think we have the better deal.
Mata was inspired and is really earning his place. As well as what he offers in attack, he was also chasing back and making tackles yesterday – something Mourinho said he cannot do, and the reason he unceremoniously sold Chelsea’s best player for two seasons.
I would have loved to have seen Pereira come on instead of Schweinstiger with the game fairly safe – the German frankly looked like he just emerged from the Oktoberfest tent, with a quite a bulk on him these days.
Daley Blind also deserves a mention. He again showed his great passing ability to set up the first goal, and although not a natural centre half, he’s doing a decent job.
Finally, for me, we are looking at United’s next captain in Smalling. He has come on leaps and bounds and is finally maturing into the player we were all hoping to see a couple of years ago.
We’re top of the league and we’ve even caught up with City’s goal difference, which as we know to our cost, could be vital. Will we win the league? Who knows – there’s a long way to go, but hopefully there will be more believers now. The real test comes next week against Arsenal. Let’s see how we come away from the Emirates before we get too excited.